Marathon Petroleum Takes Bailout Tax Breaks During Pandemic
By Sarah Thomas and Nathan Heffernan
Fossil fuel companies have reaped millions of dollars in benefits from a stimulus package intended to help struggling Americans and the economy. Among these is Marathon Petroleum, the largest oil refiner in the country, which has a history of air pollution violations impacting low-income and Black and Brown communities.
Oil Companies Receiving Bailout Money
The CARES Act included several provisions to support businesses, one of which allowed companies to claim an immediate tax refund by deducting current operating losses from income taxes paid in the past five years. As a result of changes to allow the "carryback" of net operating losses, Marathon received $411 million in tax benefits, a sum even greater than their recent $334 million penalty for environmental violations. The Federal Reserve also included Marathon Petroleum in its recent purchase of energy bonds.
Oil and gas companies, like Marathon, are not violating any rules by claiming this tax benefit, but there are significant downsides to using public resources to prop up dirty companies with a history of air pollution violations in the midst of a pandemic that targets the respiratory system. As part of the paycheck protection program, a separate program under the CARES Act, at least $3 billion in taxpayer dollars intended for small businesses have gone to over 5,600 U.S. fossil fuel companies and are being used to save an antiquated industry, rather than investing in a sustainable future that will benefit all Americans.
Democratic lawmakers have warned that this oil bailout is not only taking the funds meant for smaller businesses, but is also forcing taxpayers to pay for the industry's past mistakes. Senators Brian Schatz and Sheldon Whitehouse wrote that the pandemic "was not the source of the oil and gas industry's dire financial condition," and that this bailout "poses both a credit risk and a more profound climate transition risk to taxpayers."
Marathon Petroleum is just one example of an oil company that was already struggling prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, partly due to their expensive 2018 acquisition of rival refiner Andeavor. Oil companies have been pursuing such mergers in an attempt to generate investor excitement and make up for the structural weaknesses of the oil sector. More specifically, upstream companies have spent billions more on drilling than they receive from selling the produced oil and gas, which creates a condition known as negative free cash flow. Investing in oil stock has had a similarly negative trajectory, as the average U.S. oil producer over the past three years has produced a total return of negative 17%.
A History of Environmental Racism
The acquisition of Andeavor and other refineries has made Marathon Petroleum the largest refiner in the U.S. with a long list of costly penalties. All told, Marathon and its acquired companies have been fined more than $1.4 billion in environmental, consumer protection and workplace violations since 2000. A significant recent example was its $334 million settlement with the EPA in 2016 to reduce air pollutants in five states: Michigan, Louisiana, Ohio, Kentucky, and Illinois. The EPA announced that the required investments in air pollution controls would "help reduce emissions that can cause respiratory and cardiovascular health impacts, which can disproportionately affect low-income and vulnerable populations."
Many of Marathon's refineries have notably high indicators for Environmental Justice Indexes, signifying high levels of air pollution among minority and at-risk groups. For the 1-mile radius surrounding the Detroit, Michigan refinery, the surrounding communities score above the state 90th percentile for diesel particulate matter, air toxics cancer risk, and respiratory hazard index. The Canton, Ohio refinery additionally scores around the 75th percentile in these indexes. The Garyville, Louisiana refinery — located in Louisiana's infamous "Cancer Alley" — scores in the 99th percentile country-wide for air toxics cancer risk. The Political Economy Research Institute lists Marathon as the 33rd worst air polluter in the nation, with an Environmental Justice Minority Share of 59%, meaning that its refineries disproportionately impact communities of color.
Despite the 2016 EPA settlement, communities living nearby to the refineries continue to face environmental injustices and deadly air pollution. In Southwest Detroit, the predominantly Black zip code 48217, the most polluted area in Michigan, is home to dozens of polluting facilities, including the Marathon Petroleum refinery. This residential area experiences higher rates of asthma and cancer than the rest of the country due to toxic pollution. Community organizers and environmental justice groups have protested the Marathon refinery over the past decade, calling for accountability from the oil giant and buy-outs for their now devalued property.
In September 2019, an alleged vapor leak sparked further protests as Marathon failed to inform residents of the dangers and health impacts of chemicals released. Prior to the September incident, an earlier vapor release in February of 2019 caused residents to complain of "a nauseating stench" and of "vomiting, troubled or labored breathing, and irritated eyes and throats" reported the Metro Times. The September incident prompted U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib and the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform in February 2020 to request that the EPA undertake a formal investigation of the chemical leak by Marathon. The facility is the only oil refinery in Michigan, and as Metro Times reports "emits 29 different types of toxins, which waft across neighborhoods and puts residents at an elevated risk of cancer, respiratory disease, asthma, and liver failure."
The impacts on nearby communities does not stop at environmental health. Marathon and its affiliates have also racked up nearly $40 million in penalties for workplace safety or health violations, according to the Violationtracker website.
Lobbying Against Common-Sense Solutions
The CARES Act bailout to Marathon Petroleum, a significant air polluter, is further concerning given the lobbying ties the fossil fuel giant has with the Trump administration. In May 2020, the House Oversight Committee requested documents from Marathon Petroleum related to its extensive lobbying efforts related to Trump's rollback of fuel economy standards — a rule change that has already been mired in scandal. In 2018, Gary Heminger, Marathon's former CEO, told investors the new rule would help sell up to 400,000 more barrels of oil a day. The investigation seeks documents detailing meetings with top officials at the EPA and the Department of Transportation.
While the CARES Act is necessary for stimulating the economy during this crisis, large hand-outs to notorious air polluters must be scrutinized. Air pollution exposure has been linked to increasing incidence and severity of several respiratory infections that are similar to COVID-19. Residential areas surrounding oil refineries such as Marathon Petroleum are often predominantly Black communities, which are already affected disproportionately by the pandemic. The bailout money towards Marathon Petroleum maintains oil refineries that pollute surrounding communities, worsening the health and economic impacts of the Covid pandemic.
Our recovery from this crisis shouldn't worsen existing public health problems or lock us into higher greenhouse gas emissions. We need a green and just recovery that puts us on a path to the sustainable future we need.
Reposted with permission from Greenpeace.
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By Eric Tate and Christopher Emrich
Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.
Mapping Social Vulnerability<p>Figure 1a is a typical map of social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract level based on the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) algorithm of <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002" target="_blank"><em>Cutter et al.</em></a> . Spatial representation of the index depicts high social vulnerability regionally in the Southwest, upper Great Plains, eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, and southern Appalachia, among other places. With such a map, users can focus attention on select places and identify population characteristics associated with elevated vulnerabilities.</p>
Fig. 1. (a) Social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract scale is mapped here following the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Red and pink hues indicate high social vulnerability. (b) This bivariate map depicts social vulnerability (blue hues) and annualized per capita hazard losses (pink hues) for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019.<p>Many current indexes in the United States and abroad are direct or conceptual offshoots of SoVI, which has been widely replicated [e.g., <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13753-016-0090-9" target="_blank"><em>de Loyola Hummell et al.</em></a>, 2016]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/placeandhealth/svi/index.html" target="_blank">has also developed</a> a commonly used social vulnerability index intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, and after disasters.</p><p>The first modeling and mapping efforts, starting around the mid-2000s, largely focused on describing spatial distributions of social vulnerability at varying geographic scales. Over time, research in this area came to emphasize spatial comparisons between social vulnerability and physical hazards [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-009-9376-1" target="_blank"><em>Wood et al.</em></a>, 2010], modeling population dynamics following disasters [<a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11111-008-0072-y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Myers et al.</em></a>, 2008], and quantifying the robustness of social vulnerability measures [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-012-0152-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate</em></a>, 2012].</p><p>More recent work is beginning to dissolve barriers between social vulnerability and environmental justice scholarship [<a href="https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304846" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Chakraborty et al.</em></a>, 2019], which has traditionally focused on root causes of exposure to pollution hazards. Another prominent new research direction involves deeper interrogation of social vulnerability drivers in specific hazard contexts and disaster phases (e.g., before, during, after). Such work has revealed that interactions among drivers are important, but existing case studies are ill suited to guiding development of new indicators [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.09.013" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Rufat et al.</em></a>, 2015].</p><p>Advances in geostatistical analyses have enabled researchers to characterize interactions more accurately among social vulnerability and hazard outcomes. Figure 1b depicts social vulnerability and annualized per capita hazard losses for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019, facilitating visualization of the spatial coincidence of pre‑event susceptibilities and hazard impacts. Places ranked high in both dimensions may be priority locations for management interventions. Further, such analysis provides invaluable comparisons between places as well as information summarizing state and regional conditions.</p><p>In Figure 2, we take the analysis of interactions a step further, dividing counties into two categories: those experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019. The differences among individual race, ethnicity, and poverty variables between the two county groups are small. But expressing race together with poverty (poverty attenuated by race) produces quite different results: Counties with high hazard losses have higher percentages of both impoverished Black populations and impoverished white populations than counties with low hazard losses. These county differences are most pronounced for impoverished Black populations.</p>
Fig. 2. Differences in population percentages between counties experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019 for individual and compound social vulnerability indicators (race and poverty).<p>Our current work focuses on social vulnerability to floods using geostatistical modeling and mapping. The research directions are twofold. The first is to develop hazard-specific indicators of social vulnerability to aid in mitigation planning [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-04470-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate et al.</em></a>, 2021]. Because natural hazards differ in their innate characteristics (e.g., rate of onset, spatial extent), causal processes (e.g., urbanization, meteorology), and programmatic responses by government, manifestations of social vulnerability vary across hazards.</p><p>The second is to assess the degree to which socially vulnerable populations benefit from the leading disaster recovery programs [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/17477891.2019.1675578" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Emrich et al.</em></a>, 2020], such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) <a href="https://www.fema.gov/individual-disaster-assistance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Individual Assistance</a> program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) <a href="https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/cdbg-dr/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Disaster Recovery</a> program. Both research directions posit social vulnerability indicators as potential measures of social equity.</p>
Social Vulnerability as a Measure of Equity<p>Given their focus on social marginalization and economic barriers, social vulnerability indicators are attracting growing scientific interest as measures of inequity resulting from disasters. Indeed, social vulnerability and inequity are related concepts. Social vulnerability research explores the differential susceptibilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations, whereas social equity analyses tend to focus on population disparities in the allocation of resources for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. Interventions with an equity focus emphasize full and equal resource access for all people with unmet disaster needs.</p><p>Yet newer studies of inequity in disaster programs have documented troubling disparities in income, race, and home ownership among those who <a href="https://eos.org/articles/equity-concerns-raised-in-federal-flood-property-buyouts" target="_blank">participate in flood buyout programs</a>, are <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063477407" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eligible for postdisaster loans</a>, receive short-term recovery assistance [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.102010" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Drakes et al.</em></a>, 2021], and have <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/25/texas-natural-disasters--mental-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">access to mental health services</a>. For example, a recent analysis of federal flood buyouts found racial privilege to be infused at multiple program stages and geographic scales, resulting in resources that disproportionately benefit whiter and more urban counties and neighborhoods [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120905439" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Elliott et al.</em></a>, 2020].</p><p>Investments in disaster risk reduction are largely prioritized on the basis of hazard modeling, historical impacts, and economic risk. Social equity, meanwhile, has been far less integrated into the considerations of public agencies for hazard and disaster management. But this situation may be beginning to shift. Following the adage of "what gets measured gets managed," social equity metrics are increasingly being inserted into disaster management.</p><p>At the national level, FEMA has <a href="https://www.fema.gov/news-release/20200220/fema-releases-affordability-framework-national-flood-insurance-program" target="_blank">developed options</a> to increase the affordability of flood insurance [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018]. At the subnational scale, Puerto Rico has integrated social vulnerability into its CDBG Mitigation Action Plan, expanding its considerations of risk beyond only economic factors. At the local level, Harris County, Texas, has begun using social vulnerability indicators alongside traditional measures of flood risk to introduce equity into the prioritization of flood mitigation projects [<a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/Portals/62/Resilience/Bond-Program/Prioritization-Framework/final_prioritization-framework-report_20190827.pdf?ver=2019-09-19-092535-743" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Harris County Flood Control District</em></a>, 2019].</p><p>Unfortunately, many existing measures of disaster equity fall short. They may be unidimensional, using single indicators such as income in places where underlying vulnerability processes suggest that a multidimensional measure like racialized poverty (Figure 2) would be more valid. And criteria presumed to be objective and neutral for determining resource allocation, such as economic loss and cost-benefit ratios, prioritize asset value over social equity. For example, following the <a href="http://www.cedar-rapids.org/discover_cedar_rapids/flood_of_2008/2008_flood_facts.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2008 flooding</a> in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cost-benefit criteria supported new flood protections for the city's central business district on the east side of the Cedar River but not for vulnerable populations and workforce housing on the west side.</p><p>Furthermore, many equity measures are aspatial or ahistorical, even though the roots of marginalization may lie in systemic and spatially explicit processes that originated long ago like redlining and urban renewal. More research is thus needed to understand which measures are most suitable for which social equity analyses.</p>
Challenges for Disaster Equity Analysis<p>Across studies that quantify, map, and analyze social vulnerability to natural hazards, modelers have faced recurrent measurement challenges, many of which also apply in measuring disaster equity (Table 1). The first is clearly establishing the purpose of an equity analysis by defining characteristics such as the end user and intended use, the type of hazard, and the disaster stage (i.e., mitigation, response, or recovery). Analyses using generalized indicators like the CDC Social Vulnerability Index may be appropriate for identifying broad areas of concern, whereas more detailed analyses are ideal for high-stakes decisions about budget allocations and project prioritization.</p>
By Jessica Corbett
Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday was the lone progressive to vote against Tom Vilsack reprising his role as secretary of agriculture, citing concerns that progressive advocacy groups have been raising since even before President Joe Biden officially nominated the former Obama administration appointee.